To the editor:
In his Sept. 18 letter to the editor (“America shouldn’t be guilty of social, ethnic cleansing”), James Brown does something I wish were more common: he cites historical documents. Unfortunately, he does so incompletely, and thus draws erroneous conclusions. He makes many claims, but due to space limitations I will confine myself to two of them: his assertions about Generals Lee and Grant, my responses to which will, I hope, prove instructive regarding the practice of history.
First, Mr. Brown’s quotes from Lee’s letter in which Lee states, “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery, as an institution, is a moral and political evil…. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy… This influence, though slow, is sure.”
He omits, however, some essential lines: “It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence.“
Omitting those words leads to inaccurate conclusions regarding Lee’s beliefs about slavery, which he regarded as being a necessary evil for the slave and a greater evil for the white race. Enslaved people would rightly beg to differ. Perhaps Mr. Brown did not have the full text. It is readily available online, and I urge him to read the whole thing.
As to Mr. Brown’s assertion that Lee did not own slaves, he is incorrect. Lee owned slaves personally as late as 1852, and was, as executor of his father-in-law’s estate after 1857, responsible for the slaves that gentleman had owned. In 1859, when some of those slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee ordered them whipped.
As Wesley Norris, one of the recaptured slaves, would testify in 1866, Lee commanded the person doing the whipping to “lay it on well,” and then ordered that salt water be poured on their wounds. It is difficult to see the kindly Robert E. Lee of myth in such actions.
One statement that Mr. Brown makes is true: General Grant was a slave owner, in that he owned one slave, William Jones, who was probably given to him some time between 1854 and 1859, most likely by his father-in-law, Frederick Dent (the historical record is sparse). Grant freed Mr. Jones in 1859, at a time when Grant was dead broke and could have used the money that would have come from selling a slave. He drew up the manumission papers himself, most likely, because he could not afford a lawyer. Simply saying that Grant was a slave owner, while literally true, presents as simple something that is more complex, and thus misleads, albeit unintentionally.
And that is a mistake beginning historians often make. They fail to recognize that history is complex, and that its complexity requires the historian to be imaginative in the questions asked, but judicious in the conclusions drawn. While I cannot know what questions Mr. Brown asked, his conclusions are neither judicious nor correct.